City Dedicates West Cambridge Youth Center Named for Former Mayor

City Dedicates West Cambridge Youth Center Named for Former Mayor

By Karen Klinger

At the recent dedication of the long-awaited youth and community center in West Cambridge, two men who grew up using the cramped facility it replaces marveled as they looked around at the new multi-use, state-of-the-art building on Huron Avenue that was many years in the making.

“I grew up in West Cambridge with the old youth center,” said State Senator Anthony Galluccio, recalling that in those days the city facility was nothing more than a cramped space in an apartment at Corcoran Park, a nearby public housing complex.

Galluccio, also a former mayor and city councilor, added that while the new 30,000-square-foot building is capable of offering a wide array of programs not just for young people, but seniors, the disabled and community groups, it will be up to the center’s advisory board and supporters to make sure it fulfills its potential.

“You tell us how to make this youth center successful,” he said to a standing-room audience in the center’s large second floor performance space. “You drive this train. Make sure it’s filled every day.”

Police Officer Michael Daniliuk is another former kid from the neighborhood who fondly remembered the people he knew and the guidance he received at the old youth center, but not the crowded space itself. He lauded all of those involved in effort, going back to the early 1990s, to find and build a new facility for the West Cambridge community.

As Deputy City Manager Rich Rossi recalled, that effort finally started coming together four years ago when the city purchased the building housing the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8818 for $2.9 million. Officials agreed to replace it with a new 7,200-square-foot VFW post adjoining the envisioned community center.

The resulting complex, designed by the architectural firm Cambridge Seven Associates, includes a gymnasium, fitness room, kitchen, computer laboratory, dance/performance space and an arts and crafts room. There is also a community meeting room and a space that can accommodate 350 people for events such as dances, theatrical performances and movies.

The building was also designed to be environmentally friendly, with “green” features enabling it to be achieve a silver LEED certification. On its website, Cambridge Seven notes that the building uses low albedo roofing and rapidly renewable features such as bamboo millwork and linoleum flooring. It also has solar panels and there are occupancy lighting sensors.

Officially, the new facility is named the Mayor Sheila Doyle Russell West Cambridge Youth and Community Center for a woman born and raised in the city who served on the city council for 14 years and as mayor from 1996 to 1997. She also was married to another mayor, Leonard Russell, who held the job from 1984 to 1985.

Russell was there for the dedication September 25 with members of her large family, including children and grandchildren. Before the ribbon-cutting ceremony that capped the ceremonies, she heard an array of city officials present and past praise her ability to get things done--or “waving her magic wand,” as Galluccio and others put it.

As several speakers noted, the new Russell center is almost within sight of the Huron Avenue Bridge, which was renamed for Leonard Russell shortly after his death in 1985. Harvard University also established several scholarships in his honor.

When it was her turn to speak, Sheila Russell, sporting a bright flower corsage on her dark suit, told a few jokes, thanked her former colleagues and the community and then asked several youngsters to join her in cutting the blue ribbon, to standing applause.

Before the dedication ceremonies, visitors had a chance to walk around the center, watching young people engage in a variety of activities, including cooking in the "teaching kitchen" and in the large gymnasium,in group “gymcraftics,” a workout described as a means for “sharing, learning and working together.”

For children aged nine to 13, the center offers “after school programs” Monday to Friday from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. and “teen programs” on those days from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. for young people aged 14 to 18. For a more information on activities and registration, go to

One striking aspect of the new center is the permanent video installation called “The Cantabrigians” by artist Michael Oatman hanging on a second-floor wall. The work, commissioned by the Cambridge Arts Council, consists of 23 videos of 10 minutes each involving 70 residents of West Cambridge.

Working in a temporary studio at the city hall annex last spring, Oatman asked people to sit for portraits alone or with friends and in some cases, holding favorite things such as stuffed animals. Then he videotaped scenes from the neighborhood as backdrops. The results appear continuously on three adjoining vertical monitors. (More on the project can be found at

When plans for the community center were first announced, some local dance groups that used the old VFW hall for weekly events feared they would be shut out of the new space. But after negotiations, the city agreed that the dancers could have access to the facility.

Among the first scheduled events is what the New England Folk Festival Association calls an “experimental” contra dance on October 25 from 7:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. On its website,, the organization explained that before scheduling weekly dances at the new facility, “we are going to take it for a spin with a contra dance.”

City Councilor Ken Reeves told former Mayor Russell he was looking forward to taking part in another kind of dance at the center. “I can’t wait until they have a sock hop here,” he said, “and I’ll come and dance with you.”


It's too bad the city charges so much to rent the community hall. The community groups who asked to have it built can't afford to use it.